April 30, 2014

UT Austin: Control what you can, keep students safe

Orientation includes urging students to look out for each other.

Mandatory 11 p.m. classes, a requirement that students had to live on campus for orientation and repeated messaging that if you see something, do something.

Those were some of the changes my colleagues and I at The University of Texas at Austin implemented last summer to keep students safe during our summer orientation.

The unfortunate reality is that universities have limited means for policing conduct that sometimes occurs away from campus. Change requires complicated and creative solutions to identify the places where a university does have control. So changing what we could control is exactly what we did.

As noted in the report released by the White House Council on Women and Girls, many rapes occur at parties fueled by alcohol. At UT Austin, these parties frequently happen off-campus, limiting our possible responses.

Criminologists have long understood that crime is not a simple function of the behaviors and intentions of perpetrators, nor is it simply about choices that victims make.

Instead, situations create opportunities for crime to happen, and we had to find a way to cut down on these opportunities.

In 2012, we examined how off-campus activities affect students who attend our summer orientation. We instituted major changes to cut down on opportunities that might endanger our students.

We required that students live on campus for orientation and attend an 11 p.m. meeting each night, conflicting with the timeof most off-campus parties.

Only regular attendance at these night meetings preserved the students’ access to priority registration slots — a major reason students attended orientation in the first place.

Orientation had always included a mandatory session on campus safety, but last session we also included repeated messages about the importance of bystander intervention.

Using the tag line, “I saw something, I did something,” we created a video with UT students that emphasized the need for all of us to look out for one another. We hoped to shift the culture so that students would come to believe that it is their job to look out for one another.

More than 99 percent of our orientation students attended those late night meetings, attendance at our other evening events increased significantly, and, most importantly, we cut down on opportunities for risk.

As the students featured in our bystander intervention video proclaim, “At UT, we take care of each other.” I firmly believe that if all students across the country heard and practiced that message, and other universities adopted the same kinds of changes that we did at UT Austin, we would be on a firm path to eliminating campus rape across the country.

Marc Musick is an associate dean in UT Austin’s College of Liberal Arts and a professor of sociology. musick@austin.utexas.edu

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